Archive for the 'General' Category


The revolution will not be televised

Sunday, June 16th, 2019

The sleeper topic that will corrode the government’s ratings


Allow me to tell you the most middle class joke in existence.  Q: What do gay men do in bed? A: Eat biscuits and listen to Radio 4, same as everybody else.

OK, it’s all in the delivery.  Radio 4, and the rest of the BBC, have long term concerns about the delivery of their services too: where is the money going to come from to fund them?  This is a central problem for a broadcaster that does not take paid advertisements and that is dependent on public funding.

The BBC’s funding in large part comes from the revenues for the television licence fee.  In 1999, the government made licence fees for the over 75s free. It did so by the government meeting the cost and paying that sum over to the BBC.

In an era of burgeoning deficits, George Osborne could not afford such largesse.  When the BBC’s charter came to be renewed, it secured the BBC’s agreement in 2015 that the government would phase out this subsidy by 2020, leaving it to the BBC to consider whether it would continue to offer free licence fees for the over 75s.

The BBC duly consulted and earlier this month announced that it would be discontinuing free licences for all over 75s as from June 2020.  It would continue to provide free licences for those over 75s who were in a household where one person received the pension credit benefit.  However, this excludes most of the pensioners who previously enjoyed this benefit.

The news broke, the howls of disappointment were heard and the news cycle moved on.  It is far from clear, however, that the general public is as philosophical about the matter.  A Parliamentary petition to reverse this decision has already reached more than 160,000 signatures with little publicity, putting it comfortably in the top 10 for live petitions (four of those above it relate to Brexit).  Complaints about this decision are whistling around Facebook feeds – you might well have seen posts like the one at the top of the thread.

There is a certain irony about resistance to changes to television licence fees being organised online.  For the internet is one of the essential challenges to television’s future as a medium. It is, however, now much easier than ever before to see what really motivates voters (or at least what they are talking about).

It’s not necessarily that the BBC’s decision is a bad one as a general principle.  Pensioners are on average wealthier than the average and they are much more likely to be watching television in the first place – the average age of viewers of both BBC1 and BBC2 is over 60.  It isn’t immediately clear why wealthy old people should have their entertainment subsidised by younger poorer people. You can imagine their collective choking into the ovaltine if it were proposed that Netflix subscriptions for millennials were to be paid for free from the exchequer.

This is not a cheap subsidy.  The cost of providing free licences to the over 75s accounts for roughly a fifth of the BBC’s budget.  Contrary to the message in the tweet above, the cost is roughly £750 million a year.

However, the public rightly has a special tenderness for the needs of the elderly and a sizeable proportion of the public is hostile to the idea of exposing them specifically to any aspect of austerity, whether or not those being asked to pay could in fact afford it.  And the central point of British politics should not be forgotten: old people vote.

This decision is likely to be blamed on the government and there is a real prospect that it will help lose the Conservatives votes.  No wonder some of the Conservative leadership candidates, including that fluffy dewy-eyed liberal Esther McVey, were looking to reverse it.

In the longer term, the problem of funding the BBC remains.  One of the live petitions that has the most signatories advocates scrapping the licence fee completely.  That raises the question how the BBC should in fact be funded. Fewer and fewer people are watching TV (television viewing hours are dropping steeply at present) and young people are not in the habit in the same way as earlier generations.  The BBC remains relevant to all – for example, 81% of the public get news from it in one way or another. But if the licence fee itself is becoming an anachronism, how is the BBC to continue to thrive in an increasingly multi-media world?

And what of those gay men I mentioned at the outset?  Just 1% of 16-24 year olds get news from Radio 4 (52% of them get news from Facebook).  Unless the public’s habits evolve further, those gay men are soon going to have to start doing something else in bed instead after all.


Alastair Meeks


House games: Where Dragons fly and swords shimmer

Saturday, June 8th, 2019

Welcome to a very real fantasy

Season 3: Episode 23/26

Violence and turmoil stalked the land. The old queen was not yet dead though she might as well have been. Her demise had been long, inglorious and inevitable, and yet that very inevitability gave her stubborn fight against it a redeeming air. It might have done little for her kingdom save stave off civil war for a few months but it had at least done that, as rival armies massed over the horizon – sometimes not even over the horizon.

With no natural heir, rival contenders circled each other warily within her realm too, uneasily aware that alliances were hard made and easily broken; that to engage in the contest was to make oneself too clearly a rival power should they fail and yet to not engage smacked of weakness. Better to demonstrate strength now and seek a deal later off the back of it than to repeat the fate of the now-banished Duke of Osbourne who the old queen had advised to ‘get to know the kingdom better’ after he’d declined to seek the crown he might so easily have worn had the first great War of Brecsit ended differently.

Yet if fear of a rival’s success from within the House were not enough, other Houses sought the throne too. Not that any of them were overwhelmingly powerful. The massed forces who gathered under the banner of the Red Rose were many, yet divided and under the leadership of a man more wizard than prince.

Endless had been the intrigues and yet still he led, having now outlasted two occupants of the Great Throne, protected by his courtiers and ready to make another bid for it himself.

Or her would be were it not that a power greater than any human – or any wizard – were at large. Men may seek the Throne; women too. But the War of Brecsit had unleashed a dragon which had no desire for such petty prizes: it sought nothing less than to control the soul of the kingdom. To gain true mastery meant not only subjugating rival Houses but slaying that dragon, for whilst it lived, no human could govern.

Yet how to kill it? The old queen had sought to appease the beast but whilst its appetite for silver was voracious, still it always demanded more. Much more. Demands which could not possibly be met despite her willingness – hence the poison in the 1922 claret which now ailed her.

Many in the House of Unio argued that the dragon must be confronted and slain, even if that took a second great war. Corbin was not yet moved though. The skirmish of Petricastra [see episode 22] had proven to him that he could fight on the ground of his own choosing and that others would be weakened by attrition over the summer. His own forces could still stand. Let the great gatherings of the Equinox determine the strategy for the decisive autumn battles, even if the cost of so doing was to let the dragon continue to run amok. Better to govern a scarred and scorched kingdom than not to govern at all.

But Unio was not alone in seeking the Great Throne. Suddenly, not one but two other armies sought the field, sensing the weakness and division in the Castle and the opportunities that gave. Remarkably, the House of Libertas – last seen routed in Season 1, when their erstwhile allies turned on them in a brutal, bloody but highly effective purge – was back, and back in strength. True, their prince too had been forced to abdicate but not before, perhaps more by luck than judgement, he had led them to exactly the right place at the right moment.

More extraordinary still was the reappearance of the Duke of Tusomnum, also last seen at the end of Season 1, who now rode his own dragon at the head of a new army. Although Petricaster had proven a defeat for him, it was a defeat that nonetheless showed both his hand and his strength.

For now though, both Libertas and Tusomnum had matters to attend to. They would join the epic battle for the kingdom but not until the Season finale. Before then, the Yellow army had a succession of its own to manage, while the Teal banner flew above a force that was comprised overwhelmingly of novices and which needed time to be trained.

And the Court? Riven by intrigue, division and dissent, there hung heavily an oppressive air over the internal power struggle: an uneasy sense that it might all be a fool’s prize. Earl de Feffel might well win out for now but what good would that do once the nights started to draw in, if he couldn’t unite his House and couldn’t defeat his rivals, never mind slay the dragon and heal the nation. That was truly a quest for heroes and whatever else de Feffel might be, few saw him as that.

He knew though that October would be the time. Inescapably, the pieces were all moving to ensure not just a Second Brecsit War then but also, so soon after his ascent, probably his downfall – unless he could pre-empt it by taking his rivals by surprise. Should he fail though, winter would come, for him and his House. Depending on the war’s outcome, possibly the kingdom too.

David Herdson (who has never watched Game of Thrones).


Getting the MPs we deserve?

Friday, April 12th, 2019

A guest slot from Harris Tweed

In a rare moment of PB agreement in a recent thread, Casino_Royale and Nick Palmer, himself a former MP, discussed the shallow gene pool which provides too many of our MPs, and the party and parliamentary processes which aim – not always successfully – to keep them in check. Strong whipping, party patronage and a lack of local competition in their seats mean too many members can enjoy a trouble- and blame-free life on the backbenches with an agreeably-subsidised lunch. As Nick also pointed out, this stifles free thinking and bores some of the cream before it has the chance to rise to the top. (Before I go any further, I apologise for the generalisations in this piece, and agree wholeheartedly that most MPs are doing what they believe to be best, and a number way in excess of zero succeeding).

The three factors I mentioned in breaking down this order of things are probably not the only ones, but they’ve each played their own role. Brexit and Corbyn are effectively the same issue – factors which have split parties to a greater depth than whipping can fix. Both stem from public/membership votes which weren’t tied to the provision of a Commons majority to deliver a programme. Labour members elected a leader clearly unacceptable to a majority of the MPs, and the great British public decided Leave was A Thing without providing the parliamentary clout to see it through. This has left the whipping system broken, and may yet split one or both of the main parties.

I mention social media, because it’s a relatively new influence on MPs. Too often it’s negative and reactive (“people on Facebook are for/against X, therefore so must I be”), and leaves MPs scared of the baying mob. They ignore the fact that the people moved to post about X are very much the fired-up front row, and never a representative sample of their constituents. Nor are they posting from a position of legislating in the round. But it has also democratised the process, and allowed actual experts to illustrate when MPs are talking out of their hats, using the valuable but unfashionable currency of researched facts.

And it’s the lack of that currency among MPs which worries me most. In the “trouble-free/agreeably subsidised lunch/working parliamentary majority” era, they could get away with being ill-informed sheep. Now that each one has become what Nick Palmer called a ‘quasi minister’, chuntering at an op-ed in the Mail and jeering at PMQs really won’t cut it. But we’re the ones who send them there, and the baying mob has more votes than the academic expert on trade in lemons. Too many times, MPs grasp onto a passing opinion piece in the papers as evidence for what they should think or do, without considering that its author was up against a deadline and will be measured on retweets rather than accurate facts-per-paragraph. Get your head in the Commons library and read some actual facts on which to base your opinions!

But even among PB members, how many of us do enough due diligence on the people we send to Westminster? How many of us consider the calibre and quality of the individual rather than which colour rosette they wear and whether they support Policy Y from Party Leader Z? And among the electorate at large, where local newspaper readership has been decimated and local radio stations no longer need to be local, how many voters even know or care who their MP is?

The ‘current situation’ may have left many holding heads in hands, exasperated at MPs’ collective failures. And that may increase the disconnect between Westminster and the voters. But perhaps we can also hope that it’ll lead to at least a few more of us checking who we’re sending there in the first place.

Harris Tweed

(Harris Tweed has been a PB poster for five years and a reader for over a decade. He works in the media, parts of which he fully agrees also find themselves in need of “adultier adults”!)


Why there has to be trust in a complaints procedure for it to be effective

Sunday, March 3rd, 2019

It was barely 5 months ago that Dame Laura Cox issued her withering report on an entrenched culture within Parliament “cascading from the top down, of deference, subservience, acquiescence and silence, in which bullying and sexual harassment have been able to thrive and have long been tolerated and concealed.” Strong stuff. But despite token words of condemnation and promises to learn the lessons and implement the necessary changes, the report – let alone the promised actions – seem to have sunk without trace.

A pity. There is much to learn from the report which could well be applied to other organisations facing allegations of bullying. This can be seen starkly in the public exchange of correspondence about between Tom Watson (a man whose past conduct, both in relation to his accusations of child abuse against political opponents and as Minister for Digital Engagement at the time of the Damian McBride affair, might well be graced with the “bullying” moniker) and Jenny Formby, Labour’s General Secretary, valiantly trying to stop the existing Labour complaints process from being compromised and slowed down, at least according to her latest letter.

It is always much easier to focus on arguments about processes and procedures, especially when disciplinary proceedings are being contemplated, when any failure to follow due process can lead to trouble. But as Dame Laura put it: a “devotion to process and language rather than to real effectiveness” is a waste of time. Rather, like the MacGuffin in Hitchcock films, such arguments are merely a device to move the story forward.

One of the key reasons why Watson says he is interfering is because the complaints system is not trusted. Is this Formby’s fault? This is to ask the wrong question.

Whatever process is in place, whatever procedures and rules exist, however good and effective they are, they are never sufficient. Necessary yes. But they are mostly proof of the importance with which the issue is viewed. The real test of any complaints process is whether those for whom it exists trust the organisation to investigate properly and act on the findings, no matter who is involved. Without that trust, even the best written procedures implemented by a whole host of angels are mere will o’ the wisps.

And why might that trust be missing? Well, here again Dame Laura can assist. When interviewed about her report she put forward three questions that those at the top of an organisation should ask themselves when having to manage cultural change:-

  • Do I understand that radical change is needed?”
  • Can I deliver that change?
  • Will people have confidence that I can deliver that change?

Answering that third question honestly requires a level of self-knowledge and courage that is not as common as it should be.

It is not Formby – or not only Formby – who needs to ask herself these questions. It is Labour’s leader. If Corbyn were genuinely serious about ensuring that allegations of anti-semitism by Labour members were properly investigated, then Formby would have no difficulty in implementing an effective process. Is Corbyn genuinely serious in relation to this? He is certainly serious about wishing that such complaints did not exist and that he was not constantly asked about them.

But that is not quite the same as saying that he is serious about having them properly addressed. Indeed, judging by the response of some local Labour parties to the suspension of Chris Williamson, shooting the messenger is being seen as the only proper response – and a surprisingly popular one.

Corbyn has certainly said often enough how much of an anti-racist he is and for how long and that anti-semitism has no place in society. He has even said that those who indulge in anti-semitic abuse do not do it in his name. (Oddly, this appears to have had no effect on some of his more ardent supporters, as if they know better than him what he really wants.) And yet the more he repeats this, the more this quote comes to mind: “The louder he talked of his honour, the faster we counted our spoons.”

Watson may have set his sights on Formby and the complaints process for now. But anti-semitism did not appear out of nowhere. It was not borne into the party upon the wind. The question of how anti-semitism took hold and spread within Labour in recent years is being left, for the moment, to one side, as something too delicate or dangerous to be examined. But if trust in how Labour deals with such allegations is ever to be rebuilt then such an examination cannot long be postponed. Watson knows this. And he knows too who he really will be challenging if that is his intended destination. Is it?




Crisis, what crisis?

Thursday, February 28th, 2019

The 1979 Callaghan Winter of discontent press conference – the basis of the Sun’s famous “Crisis What Crisis” headline

A crisis broken down into key elements

For lovers of scandals and crises, the last few years have provided rich pickings, a surfeit, even.  Scarcely an institution has been untouched: the NHS – from Morecambe Bay to the Francis Report  on Stafford to Gosport, the police, the charity sector – from Amnesty to Oxfam, newspapers, the BBC, MPs and their expenses, Parliament and how it treats its staff, the care sector, local authorities and children’s homes.  On and on the list goes.  And two of the worst: the Catholic Church which, bluntly, has allowed evil to flourish and, even now, is barely starting on the steps necessary to put matters right, and the financial sector, which whether here, or Europe or the Americas or, lately, Australia, has behaved like a robber baron of old.  Between 2012 and 2016 the world’s top 20 banks paid £264 billion in fines. And now we have Labour digging itself into the biggest hole it can find.

And yet none of these scandals started out as big problems. They never do.  So why is it that organisations find it so hard to deal with problems when they are made aware of them and, with the inevitability of Sunday following Saturday, contrive to make them very much worse?

There are distinct 10 stages to a crisis but they broadly fall into 3 phases:-

Phase 1 – Denial.  An issue arises, it’s seen as a one-off, referred to HR or a quiet word is had by a manager, problem solved.  Or so the hope goes.  Then it happens again, maybe with the same person, or another, and repeatedly, but in different offices and sufficiently far apart for the bigger picture to be missed. At this point, it is becoming a bit of nuisance so people turn a blind eye, they can’t believe it’s more than just a few incidents, that there might be something systemic or an underlying issue. Surely HR can deal with this.  Then the denial gets worse: they refuse to believe it.  This cannot be happening to us – we’re good people doing good things.  This is a particular problem for the charity sector, for organisations which think of themselves as moral in some way.  It is much harder to admit – even to yourself – that , that you have a problem if you see yourself as inherently good. (Labour: please note.) The self-image of an organisation, of the people working in it are under attack. So defensiveness and lashing out follow. Better to pretend that the problems are down to just 1 or 2 bad apples.  Or you are full of very intelligent people.  Who would be so stupid as to do such silly / bad things?  The idea that intelligence does not necessarily imply integrity does not enter anyone’s head.  No – it must be just 1 or 2 bad apples.  Nothing really to see here.

There may well have been some whistleblowers by now.  The reaction described above is why there are, in reality, so few of them.  Loyalty to the team, to the group is prized above all else. (How many MPs blew the whistle, after all?  A big fat zero.). If you’re collaborative you get brownie points, bonuses and a promotion.  A loner, someone who thinks for themselves, who speaks as they find is a bit disruptive, is not playing the game.  If you speak up, you’re seen as a troublemaker, a snitch even, you’re ratting on your mates, the bosses won’t support you and, hey, you have a mortgage, a family, you want a good reference, maybe you’ve got it wrong, someone else is dealing with it, it’s not your job, keep your head down, get on with life, why make trouble.  All very human reactions and all very understandable.  Who wants to be a hero, to be courageous and end up out on their own?  And that explains why when someone does eventually speak up months or years later people’s first reaction is often to ask “Well, why now?”  Well, precisely because they feared that reaction – an attack on their motives and their message ignored, that’s why.

By now the story has got into the public domain so we get to –

Phase 2 – Still in Denial but Pretending to Do Something About It. It’s obviously not 1 or 2 apples but a whole basket of them in fact. But the same denial and defensiveness goes on, coupled with an attack on the messengers.  And here is another fact about whistleblowers, which is often ignored. Most of them are not saints.  They may have mixed motives.  They may be protecting themselves.  Or getting their revenge. Or wanting to harm those they dislike. But this does not matter.  It’s what they say that must be listened to and looked at.  But making that distinction is hard.  So, if they can be labelled as mad or bad, it’s so much easier to ignore them. And that’s what often happens, even by those who really should know better.

A limited inquiry is started in the hope that this will sort matters out. It won’t.  People become more concerned with protecting the institution than dealing with what is wrong.  A non-apology apology is crafted which forgets to say sorry, gets the tone all wrong and adds in a bit of emotional blackmail for good measure. The chief will point out all the jobs the institution provides, the taxes it pays, the good it does.  Or there is the correct legalistic – but utterly tone-deaf – statement.  (In what world did anyone at the Vatican think this response was the right one – morally, emotionally, reputationally – to Cardinal Pell’s conviction?) Procedures will be rewritten.  Processes will be updated.  It will make no difference at all.  The stories keep tumbling out.  They get worse and worse.  Resignations happen, good people not wanting to be tainted.  The authorities get involved.  Your organisation is now featuring on the front pages, at the start of the news. Your staff are fearful, anxious, at odds with each other.  The problems seem systemic.  Survival is not a given.

Finally, when the stench is becoming unbearable, when it has reached the boardroom, the leadership, when it is the only thing anyone wants to talk to you about, you get to the final stage.

Phase 3: We Have to Really Take It Seriously Now.  Eventually, a really proper thorough investigation is done and extensive, expensive and difficult remedial measures are taken. It all takes time, money and a huge amount of hard and sometimes stressful work, more than you ever think possible. And even once you have put in all this effort which, in reality, never completely ends, not if you’re serious, the institution is dealing with the continuing fall-out from the previous failures, with the reputational harm long, long after it has cleaned itself up.  Think how long the “nasty party” tag attached itself to the Tories.

What do whistleblowers, those who are concerned, really want?  Two things: to be listened to, really listened to and to have real – not token – action taken.  Listening is hard work, is difficult and is an art.  It needs empathy and patience and imagination. The listener needs to make a connection, to understand, to listen to what is said, to what is not said, if they are to have any hope of getting to the underlying truths, any hope of making real change.

What is needed for that real change to happen?  Well, everyone in the institution has to be involved.  But above all, those at the very top must really, genuinely want to make the change that is needed. They must really take to heart the criticisms they receive, not dismiss them.  They must realise that they too will need to change.  If the changes that are needed – to people’s attitudes, behaviour and reasoning not simply to a process or two – are to work, to last, to be genuine, they have to come from the top.  And those at the top need to be pushing them all the time, need to be utterly focused on this, need to be fighting against the inevitable inertia, the pushback, the “We have done enough now” pleas, the “We have other priorities” brigade, the “Aren’t we there now?” cries.

It is rare for this to happen without a change of leadership.  If that hasn’t happened, it’s a fair bet that the organisation has yet to get out of phase 2. Those who preside over a problem turning into a crisis are rarely the ones best able to resolve it.



Away from Trump/Brexit/Antisemitism Sean Fear on the perils of running a pub

Thursday, August 2nd, 2018

It’s Time to Scrap the Beer Tie

Over the years, several clients have instructed me to help fulfil their lifetime’s dream, by purchasing a pub. My usual advice is “Don’t, but if you must, for Heaven’s sake, buy a freehold.” Running a pub successfully is one of the hardest jobs one can do. One has to manage temperamental staff, satisfy demanding customers who have plenty of alternative ways of spending their money, fulfil endless regulatory requirements, and deal with suppliers who are frequently unreliable. All in the face of supermarkets selling cheap booze, and the smoking ban. Turning a profit as a pub landlord requires a working week of at least 60 hours, and taking these hours into account, you probably won’t earn more than the minimum wage in any event.

But it can be far worse than that. You can fall into the hands of a Pub Co. A Pub Co. is a species of predator whose business model can best be called the parasitic wasp method of capitalism. There are thousands of species of parasitic wasp, that lay their eggs in a host. The eggs hatch and eat the host alive, over the course of several days. Eventually, the host dies, and the young wasp emerges from the empty husk of its victim. A Pub Co. operates similarly. It buys numerous pub freeholds, before then luring the unwary into signing long leases that will bleed them dry. The unfortunate lessee will be forced to purchase beer and other drinks from the Pub Co., or its nominated supplier, at up to twice the market rate. If he purchases from someone else, in breach of the tie, he will face a hefty fine from the Pub Co. If he challenges the behaviour of the Pub Co., he will face threats of litigation from a very expensive firm of solicitors.

Win or lose, the terms of his lease will require him to pay the Pub Co.’s legal costs on an indemnity basis. Alternatively, he may find that the Pub Co. refuses to deliver on time, alienating his customers.

In contrast to most business leases, a lease from a Pub Co. takes into account the profitability of the pub, when reviewing the rent; in principle,  that could work to the advantage of a tenant if profitability declined. However, a typical rent review clause will be upwards only, so the tenant bears the risks of a decline in profits, but has to share the gain with the Pub Co. if profits increase. Moreover, If he tries to sell the lease, his lease may first require him to offer it to the Pub Co. at a discount to the open market value. If his lease does allow him to sell it to a third party, he can expect the Pub Co. to cause him maximum difficulty, before offering to take it off his hands at a discount. At the very least, he can expect to pay all sorts of administrative charges, and a hefty solicitor’s fee for dealing with the assignment.

None of this is theoretical. Every One of the examples I have given in the preceding paragraph has been experienced by my clients. One, who was the tenant of a historic pub in a city centre, lost £600,000 over the course of ten years, in large part, due to the behaviour of her Pub Co. landlord. This client is a millionaire, and so can absorb the loss. Most tenants are not so lucky.

Pub Cos. emerged, paradoxically, because of the Thatcher government’s efforts to deregulate pubs in the late Eighties. Historically, pubs were divided into freeholds (or free houses) which could purchase alcohol from any source; managed houses, owned and run by breweries, which largely stocked their products, and tied houses, owned by breweries, let to independent landlords, but tied to the brewery in terms of the products it could sell. The government sought to limit the number of tied houses which any brewery could own, so that many pubs were then put up for sale. Pub Cos. bought up many of these pubs, which they then let out on highly unfavourable terms. The booming property market between 1996 and 2007 meant that from their point of view., there was no downside to seeing their tenants fail. They could always apply for planning permission to convert the vacant pub to residential use.

Back in 2009. The Commons Business and Enterprise Committee published a damning  report on Pub Cos.,  which concluded “We believe that the supply ties operated by Pub Cos. may well be anti-competitive and may have a detrimental effect on the public house market.” The issue is again being considered by a Select Committee, but really, it’s time to treat the beer tie as the restrictive practice which it is, and abolish it for tied houses.

Why should this matter politically? I suggest three reasons:-

Firstly, rapacious business practices are undermining public faith in capitalism. This is just another sordid example, to be added to the examples of unethical business practice that have emerged since the Great Financial Crash.

Secondly, pubs matter to a lot of people. In many rural areas, they are important social centres. When they close, the village suffers.

Thirdly, it would be a quick win for an unpopular government. Drinkers and pub tenants would welcome it. Pub Cos. would howl, but how many of the public will care what they think?

Sean Fear


Hubristic Overreach – what happens to dominant parties

Tuesday, July 3rd, 2018

From ex-LAB MP and longstanding PBer Nick Palmer

It’s pretty widely-believed that politicians are all in it for themselves – the fame, the money, the sense of power. On the whole, that’s not true in most democratic countries. Fame is a double-edged sword: the media will build you up and then tear you down. If you’re good enough to get a Cabinet salary, you’re good enough to earn more for less work outside. And few retired politicians report that their experience was one of untrammelled power – most report perpetual frustration alleviated by short periods of achievement.

No, initially most people take up politics because they want to make a difference, overused phrase though that may be. More freedom, more equality, more national independence, more prosperity – the objectives vary, of course, but the spirit is surprisingly similar. That’s why you get enduring cross-party friendships: at heart there are kindred souls on the other side. Later on, though, you may start to think that what it’s all about is really just winning, so you can do Good Stuff. And that’s where you sow the seeds not just of cynicism (“What do I need to pretend to believe so I can win?”) but of hubris.

Why? Because the eternal compromise and difference-splitting and settling for quarter-measures go against the grain. You feel you need to go along with them, because otherwise the other lot will get in, and that would be terrible. But democracy forces parties to compromise with the electorate, making just enough concessions to popular preference to get a majority. On the whole, that’s a good thing, even remembering the fickle nature of many not very interested voters. But if you went into politics to achieve great change, it’s tantalising.

What, though, if you think you’ll win anyway? You are X% ahead in the polls, your opponents are divided, your personal ratings are well ahead. Well, then, it’s the chance to do the job properly, implement all those things you fancied in your most ambitious days. Why not sort out retirement care with a new system of charges, Mrs May? Why not impose an escalating fuel duty to wean people off petrol, Mr Brown? Why not send the Armed Forces to help sort out the situation in Iraq, Mr Blair? Why not slash taxpayer spending on public services, Mrs Thatcher?

Now look across the Atlantic. The Republicans control all the major levers of power, and may well continue to do so after the November elections. Why not take the opportunity to reverse Roe vs Wade? Why not really do the job of getting rid of any kind of universal health care?

Because it’s Hubristic Overreach. You can get away with it for a while, if you start in a dominant position, because voters aren’t paying that much attention. But at some point they notice, and they think, “Hang on a moment, that’s not what I voted for.” They protest, but the momentum carries you on. It’s the Right Thing to Do. They’ll appreciate it in the end. And they’ll never vote for the other lot, the polls are clear, aren’t they?

But polls measure what voters think today, not tomorrow. And, sooner or later, people get fed up. They may not vote for the alternative, but they stop voting for you. Keeping you in power has gone to your head, and it’s time to stop supporting you, even if it means giving the other lot a chance.

Conservative Republicans hope they can maintain an absolute grip on Congress in November, so they can move decisively to roll back the vestiges of liberalism. Brexiteers hope for a clear, hard Brexit, to achieve the great triumphs of freedom from tiresome European entanglement.

They should be careful what they wish for. At some point, people will pay more attention, probably in the middle of an election campaign. They notice that you’re in the grip of Hubristic Overreach. And at that point, it’s too late to rediscover the reasons why you used to compromise.

Nick Palmer


The language of priorities. What we talk about when we talk about infrastructure

Wednesday, June 6th, 2018

Infrastructure is a grand word.  Politicians use it with a grandiosity to match.  Ever since Augustus boasted that he found Rome made of brick but left it made of marble, rulers and politicians have most prized projects that leave a lasting impact on the minds of their subjects.  You can’t blame them.  There’s a glamour about a plutonium-powered hyperloop that impresses the general public in a way that upgrading the sewerage or incremental improvements to public wifi speeds will never manage.  So if you’re a politician looking for electoral bang for your buck, you’re going to look for something with as high a public profile as possible.

The needs of politicians are not necessarily the same as the needs of the country.  For example, Harold Wilson no doubt thought that securing victory in the Hull North by-election merited the pledge to build the Humber bridge.  Its value as an infrastructure project, however, is questionable. 

The finite resources of government provide a curb to the vote-buying antics of politicians.  They also require politicians to choose where to invest in infrastructure: unlike the caucus race, not everyone can have prizes.  There are going to be winners and losers.

Both questions – where to invest in infrastructure and which projects – can be and are analysed by reference to economic return.  These figures are much considered in private and barely discussed in public.  Why?  Because the answers they produce are extremely awkward politically.

How so?  Well, Vulcan logic tells you that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.  That means that projects in areas where the many are found are almost inevitably going to look like a better bet.  Similarly, projects in areas which are economically thriving are often going to be easier to justify on economic grounds because the greater initial economic wealth of the area requires only a small uplift from the project to count, while a much poorer area might require a far bigger uplift from a project to get to the same absolute level of improvement.   

So we would expect, all other things being equal, for London in particular to do very well indeed out of infrastructure projects, other large successful cities to do well too and for large poor sparsely-populated areas like the north east to do poorly.  And that is, pretty much, what we get to see.  There’s a reason why Heathrow’s new terminal is being given the go-ahead at the same time that the train network in the north is in chaos.  There’s a reason why Crossrail 2 is on the agenda at a time when the TransPennine Express upgrade is apparently being shelved.  Economically, developing infrastructure to support London should be the overwhelming priority for Britain.  Successive governments have tacitly accepted that priority.

For unto every one that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundance: but from him that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath.  This is good scripture but bad politics.  So you get regular justifiable complaints about the metropolitan bias of infrastructure projects (and silly comments like the tweet from IPPR North, who really should know better).  An economic approach which focuses on single projects will inevitably tend to concentrate infrastructure spending in London and other successful cities.

This cycle can only really be broken if government looks at projects not just on a piecemeal basis but as part of a wider development plan for an area.  There are plenty of past examples of the government trying to do this.  This is the thinking behind the introduction of metropolitan mayors, of the Northern Powerhouse and development areas in general.  With few exceptions – ironically, the obvious one, Docklands, being in London – these have not been pursued so far with sufficient consistency and sense of purpose to be effective.  At best they have broken the fall.

If no action is taken, economics will in practice ensure that by default infrastructure spending will be focused on the successful areas of Britain in general and London in particular.  Success will breed success.  Less talked about, failure will breed failure.  Poor rural areas and smaller towns can expect to be left behind.  They already have been.

What can be done?  If allocated infrastructure budgets are not just administered but controlled at a regional level, we have the prospect of revitalising those regions.  As already noted, the metropolitan mayors no doubt hope to achieve exactly that – they all have a 30 year investment fund.  Whether that is enough to turn things around, time will tell.  The Northern Powerhouse seems to be falling by the wayside as a project.  This threatens to be a serious missed opportunity to galvanise a part of the country that could sorely do with a protective coating to prevent further rusting.

That also leaves a lot of areas – a majority of the country – which are having their infrastructure needs dealt with on a piecemeal basis.  As things stand, their decline looks almost inevitable.  If you don’t live in or near a successful large city and you don’t live in a tourist area, the government is failing to prepare for you.  So you should be prepared to fail.

Alastair Meeks